An Evening of Sacred Music
Concert of Sacred Music
J. Loiola Pereira
When I went to the ‘Concert of Sacred Music’ at the Bom Jesus Basilica on the 11th of last month, I knew I was going to be treated to a unique experience of polyphonic grandeur. Fr. Romeo Monteiro, the young professor of music at Rachol Seminary, had proved his mettle before, bringing to the stage never-before-seen musical ensembles, 100 and 200-strong, singing and playing in perfect harmony, to the delight of a delirious audience.
The Concert this year was presented by an amply enlarged Santa Cecilia Choir to mark the closing of the 4th centenary celebrations of the great Seminary of Rachol. The Santa Cecilia Choir of the Patriarchal Seminary of Rachol is the oldest existing choral institution in Goa, having been founded in 1897 by the then Archbishop António Sebastião Valente, with a view “to cultivate and propagate the rich repertoire of sacred music present in the Catholic Church.” The choir is officially made up of sixteen ordinary members, although it has, most of the times, sung along with an extended affiliation of extraordinary members chosen from among the remaining students of the Seminary. For the purpose of public performances, however, Fr. Romeo, the present Director of the Choir, has extended that affiliation far beyond, to include past members and lay singers, both men and women, thus forming the choir into a robust and well balanced mixed voice ensemble, accompanied by another impressive body of instrumentalists, aptly handling most of the instruments of a symphony orchestra. On April 11th they counted 86 singers and 50 members of the orchestra.
The Concert opened with the domestic classic, Sam Fransisku Xaviera. The choice for the curtain raiser could not have been better, as we were gathered in the temple which enshrines the Relics of our great Saint. Perhaps this factor led the conductor to put some his best compositional skills at the service of this immortal hymn and so full was my satisfaction at the end of that first piece, that I thought I could go home and need not wait for the rest. I stayed on, of course.
The hymn to St. Francis Xavier was followed by a hymn to Blessed Joseph Vaz, the Patron of the Archdiocese of Goa. The haunting multi-decadal Konkani melody was again splendidly arranged for choir and orchestra by the conductor.
The centrepiece of the evening was Antonio Vivaldi’s Gloria, a full twelve-movement work by the celebrated Italian priest-composer of the baroque era. The Santa Cecilia Choir gave it an energetic performance, full of warmth and colour, which soared up into the roof of the Basilica. One could see that all those involved – the conductor, the choir, the orchestra and, last but not the least, the audience -- were thoroughly enjoying this very attractive and quintessentially Vivaldian work, as it went on filling up that sacred space.
Romeo Monteiro wanted this concert to be a tribute to all the professors of music who worked in the Seminary of Rachol and to all the priests who, having passed through the portals of that great institution, have given a substantial contribution to the development of church music in Goa. It is for this reason that all the pieces that were performed that evening were written, composed or arranged by priests.
Vivaldi was followed by selections from works by some of the better-known music professors in the Seminary. Very graciously – “so that many more priests may flourish and continue this apostolate,” to use his own words -- Fr. Monteiro invited some of the past Choir Masters of the Santa Cecilia Choir (then seminarians and now successful priests serving the Archdiocese of Goa) to conduct the execution of these works.
The first selection was from the pen of Fr. Lelis de Sousa, who taught music in Rachol from 1945 to 1951. The well harmonized Bavtto Jezuchea Kallzacho was enriched by Monteiro’s orchestration and ably directed by Fr. Avito Almeida. Maestro Camilo Xavier, holding the longest innings of thirty years in teaching music in the Seminary, left a number of well-known compositions and musical arrangements for sacred and secular music. His stately, but short, Ecce Sacerdos was skillfully enlarged and harmonically enhanced by his student and successor, Maestro Lourdino Barreto. Romeo Monteiro completed the work with a superb orchestration and Fr. Jean da Cruz Fernandes conducted a thoroughly satisfying performance of the same. This was followed by another domestic great, Ruzari Saibinni, arranged by Maestro Lourdino Barreto, undoubtedly the greatest Goan priest-musician till date. Although it does not figure among his other outstanding works, which earned him international acclaim, Ruzari Saibinni was given a soulful rendition by the Choir, under the direction of Fr. Matthew Rebello. The melodious descant designed by the composer would have perhaps been more effective had it been sung by just a few sopranos.
Fr. Bernardo Cota, the immediate predecessor of Fr. Romeo Monteiro, taught music at Rachol for 24 years. I will give you Shepherds is one of the hundreds of his tuneful musical compositions and arrangements. It is characterized by a strong phrasing and a wide range of tone that varies from hushed piano to exultant forte. The youthful choir responded naturally to the enthusiasm of the young conductor, Fr. Simon D’Cunha, who gave the piece a rather pacey rendition, to the sacrifice of its original solemnity. Fr. Vasco do Rego S.J., although a prolific music composer himself, did not teach music at Rachol Seminary, but was its Spiritual Director for many years. Being also a very respected creator of sacred poetry, he composed the lyrics and the music of Aple Maie Vinnem in a moment of sublime inspiration. I doubt Fr. Monteiro heard Fr. Rego sing that song, as I did. Had he done it, he would have perhaps devised a different, more spiritually potent, palette of dynamics for the execution of that piece, which was conducted by Fr. Mario Costa.
The last item of the programme was the Te Deum Laudamus (We praise You, God), a traditional hymn of thanksgiving, dating back to the 4th century. It was meant to raise a vote of gratitude to God for the four centuries of the Rachol establishment. It indeed proved to be the rich icing on an already delicious cake. Fr. Romeo Monteiro successfully set the Konkani translation of this glorious hymn to a superb cantata-styled composition in five movements, encouraging the audience to join in the Gregorian chant refrain in Latin, while drawing inspiration from the original chant for each of the five sections, which were rendered in rich contrapuntal harmony, including the fugue. In doing so, he followed a rather contemporary trend, which is seen increasingly in compositions for sacred music being featured, in present times, during liturgical celebrations at the Vatican. It is certainly quite a challenge to begin with Gregorian roots and raise a magnificent polyphonic edifice from such primitive building blocks to create a perfectly fulfilling musical experience. The choir and the orchestra gave it their all, carefully observing the dynamics and rising to the occasion to give a triumphant performance, further reinforced by the great acoustics of the Basilica. The only disappointment, at least to me, was the last movement, the final Amen. It was too short and somehow devoid of the contrapuntal grandeur of the other four sections. Perhaps it was so designed as to create in the audience an unfulfilled desire for more!
I must say that Fr. Romeo’s ensemble, especially the orchestra, has come of age. There had been instances in the past when some instrumental works had to be taken at a slower tempo, perhaps because the orchestra (or the soloists) could not cope up with the composer’s demands. Not this time. Besides observing the tempo prescribed by the composer, the orchestra, particularly the brass section, displayed, most of the time, a desirable level of discipline and finesse, adding up to the overall success of the performance. Romeo’s conducting was spirited and, for such a large ensemble, quite decisive. It was a joy to see the uninterrupted flow of energy emanating from those hands.
The hundred and thirty six members of the ensemble deserve our full appreciation for the dedication with which they applied themselves to the realization of this concert, in spite of all the difficulties of time and distance, and for their interest in studying and executing the Church’s rich repertoire of sacred music, notwithstanding the fact that most of the singers do not read music! A special word of appreciation for the soloists – singers Preethi Coutinho, Maria Gisela Pereira, Leena Gomes, Sharmila Gracias, Sharon Gomes and clarinetist Roy Menezes. Their naturally good voices and interpretation skills keep improving noticeably, under the keen training given by their Master. One can imagine the success future performances will bring to this fantastic ensemble.
At the end of that evening of such high-calibre music, I was left with only two words: “Bravo!” and “Encore!”